Jahlil Okafor, Frank Kaminsky among big men you need to know in the NCAA tournament

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When it comes to the NCAA tournament guards tend to get most of the attention, and that’s understandable. They have the ball in their hands more often than any of the front court positions, meaning that when the game’s on the line a guard will be the one making the important decisions.

However in order for a team to be successful they also need some skill in the front court, with the majority of recent national champions having at least one high-level big they can call upon. Below are ten big men who will have a significant impact on the tournament.

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1. Jahlil Okafor (Duke): When doubled Okafor (17.7 ppg, 9.0 rpg) has improved at attacking such situations as the season’s progressed, so much so that some teams down the stretch simply decided to use one player to defend Okafor in order to keep that from happening. Okafor’s going to be key on both ends, as Duke will need him to be better defensively than he’s been for most of the season if they’re to play deep into the tournament.

2. Frank Kaminsky (Wisconsin): Kaminsky’s been right there with Okafor in the national Player of the Year discussions and rightfully so, as the senior is one of the most unique matchups in college basketball. Kaminsky (18.2 ppg, 8.0 rpg) can score inside, and he’s also a big man who’s comfortable playing on the perimeter.

3. Willie Cauley-Stein (Kentucky): The first of two Kentucky big men on this list, Cauley-Stein (9.3 ppg, 6.4 rpg) is the best defender in college basketball. His ability to defend anyone on the floor despite being a 7-footer allows Kentucky to simply switch ball screens and not even worry about Cauley-Stein.

4. Bobby Portis (Arkansas): While Cauley-Stein has been on the receiving end of a lot of praise this season, and rightfully so, Portis was the coaches’ choice for SEC Player of the Year. Averaging 17.5 points and 8.6 rebounds per game, the sophomore is capable of scoring both inside and out for the Razorbacks. (Note: Portis was omitted in a posting error earlier.)

5. Karl-Anthony Towns (Kentucky): Towns (9.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 2.4 bpg) combines with Cauley-Stein to form the best interior tandem in the country. The freshman isn’t the all-around defender that Cauley-Stein is but he’s been good, and in addition to being a solid post scorer Towns is also shooting nearly 82 percent from the foul line.

6. Georges Niang (Iowa State): Niang (15.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 3.5 apg) is one of the cogs that get the Iowa State offense going, as he can score both inside and out for the Cyclones. Niang’s shooting nearly 47 percent from the field and 40.2 percent from three, and his ability to create plays for himself and others helps Iowa State produce the spacing and ball movement that makes them so tough to defend.

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7. Brandon Ashley (Arizona): Ashley’s been on fire of late for the Wildcats, averaging 19 points and nearly seven rebounds in the team’s last five games. Sure enough, his improved play has been a factor in Arizona playing its best basketball of the season. Ashley (12.3 ppg, 5.4 rpg) missed out on last year’s tournament with a foot injury, and his absence ultimately proved to be too difficult for Arizona to overcome.

8. Kyle Wiltjer (Gonzaga): Wiltjer (16.7 ppg, 6.0 rpg) has been a major addition for the Bulldogs, as his ability to score both inside and out has given Gonzaga a dimension in the front court that they lacked a season ago. And his ability to spend time on the perimeter is aided by the presence of fellow big men Przemek Karnowski and Domantas Sabonis.

9. Montrezl Harrell (Louisville): With the rest of Louisville’s front court being extremely young, Harrell’s been asked to carry the load inside for Rick Pitino’s team. The junior’s averaging 15.7 points and 9.5 rebounds per game, with the latter number being double what Mangok Mathiang (4.7 rpg) has produced on the glass.

10. Rico Gathers Sr. (Baylor): Given Gathers’ build the uninitiated tend to rush to discuss his merits as a football prospect (even though he’s never played organized football). But to do that is to diminish Gathers’ production on the court, as he’s averaging 11.7 points and 11.6 rebounds per game. If he can continue on that track, especially when it comes to the rebounding, Baylor can put together another successful NCAA tournament.

11. Seth Tuttle (Northern Iowa): Tuttle’s made his way onto multiple national Player of the Year candidate lists and with good reason, as he’s the leader of a Northern Iowa team that enters the tournament ranked in the top ten of the national polls. UNI’s leading scorer and rebounder, Tuttle’s shooting nearly 62 percent from the field and while he doesn’t attempt many of them he’s shooting nearly 42 percent from three.

Six More to Keep in Mind

  • Perry Ellis (Kansas)
  • Anthony Gill (Virginia)
  • Nigel Hayes (Wisconsin)
  • Jordan Mickey (LSU)
  • Larry Nance Jr. (Wyoming)
  • JayVaughn Pinkston (Villanova)